When I retired from teaching college English, I felt I'd done just about everything I'd looked forward to as an eager undergraduate who'd been turned on by poetry, fiction, ideas, and the life of the mind – everything except write the Great American Novel.
I had written book reviews, academic articles, a chapter in a book, and read papers at American studies conferences. But the Great American Novel, after a meager false start, was abandoned. In the 1970s, I did manage to publish a novelette in Galaxy, one of those garish pulp magazines that flourished in the heyday of hard-core science fiction. But publishing fiction in an ever-dwindling market began to seem much like expecting to win a lottery.
A lot changed when I retired. I found I was no longer interested in reading serious classics. What I now enjoyed was sprightly entertainment that kept me alert, relishing characters I'd begun to root for and a story with twists and surprises.
Mysteries and novels of detection, which I'd thought trivial, now seemed just the thing. When I discovered a writer I enjoyed, I read everything by him or, more often, her. My problem was that I could not help but notice opportunities the author had missed or neglected to develop, implausible episodes, and forced or unsatisfactory endings.
Maybe I could do better myself?
So I gave it a try. In the process, I learned that characters in a novel take on a life of their own. I found myself writing to discover what my characters would do next. It is something like not knowing what's going to happen in a dream. Whatever orchestrates dreams became the coauthor of my book. The unconscious? Too tepid an expression. Try German. Das Unbewusste? Though that sounds a bit more mysterious, I prefer the Greek myth of a Muse or a daemon. Mozart, after all, felt his melodies came from heaven.
What else did I learn? I learned why there's usually more than one murder per book. When your story threatens to bog down, there's nothing like another corpse to stir things up, and if the victim is the reader's prime suspect, even better!
I also learned why so many good reads have far-fetched, disappointing endings – the author is trying all too hard for a thumping conclusion (Ha! You never expected she did it, did you?) or is having difficulties pulling all the strands together.
I learned that the unraveling of the mystery ideally should take as much time as constructing the initial complications. I also decided that any reasonably alert reader should have a good idea of who did it before the sleuths do.
I began writing with two images in mind: a character knocked overboard when a sailboat suddenly jibes, and a character thrown from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade onto the expressway below. I discovered my title, "Double Trouble," and my plot only after writing about 70 pages. As it worked out, I used the image of the sailboat, but the plunge took place from an 18th-floor hotel room in Washington, D.C.
So, did I write the Great American Novel? Of course not. But I believe I did write an entertaining page turner, full of surprises. And I've realized, half way through Chapter 1 of the sequel, that writing mysteries is addictive!